Fas est et ab hoste doceri. Ovid, The Metamorphoses, IV, 428
“It’s true enough, your enemy can teach you something.” That’s how you remember translating that famous line from Ovid for college Latin class. You learned that aphorism fifty-three years ago, and hadn’t thought of it again until now. You’re about to do time inside the magnetic resonance machine in what the hospital calls the ‘imaging center.’ You wonder if there’s a hidden reason for that name: perhaps here on the table you might ‘see’ things about yourself that you wouldn’t imagine anywhere else.
As they slide you down the center of the bloated machine, you take a breath or two and close your eyes. That makes it easier to slip into that meditative dimension you always enjoy whenever you’re out sailing alone on the bay, (with eyes wide open, in that case!). Almost immediately an image confronts you. You see the red-orange tumor that swells inside you: your cancer, your enemy. “Yes, enemy, but is that the only way to think of it?” you wonder. Immediately you think there’s no way in hell — or in heaven, either — that you’re going to treat this marauding mass as a friend. But just as the the clang and clamor of the machine reaches new heights, another view settles in your heart. You see how this distended antagonist might instruct you in things you need to learn.
So you imagine what you might discover if the tumor left only minimal damage in its wake: the cancer’s excised completely, the toxins are all contained, and you’re up and at ‘em in almost no time. It’s easy to envision that scenario: you’d recognize life’s preciousness more readily, and more often. You’d “realize life, while [you] live(d) it,” as the dead Emily returned briefly to life put it in the play Our Town. You’d ‘realize’ life, at least some of the time, ”like the “saints and poets maybe, [because] they do some.” (Thornton Wilder, Our Town, Harper Publishing, 1957, p. 100) This is the case for reverence, as you imagine it; the case for wonder, while you can.
Slice by encircling slice the machine is building an image of your insides in three dimensions. The magnets whirl around you as you dig deep to envision what the remainder of your life might be like if your tumor turns out to be the harbinger of an early death. This takes a little while to come into focus. Then you’re startled by what this unwelcome mass can help you see. You realize that it’s gratitude that you’re meant to learn in the end. This cancerous intrusion is the ultimate invitation to “so number your days, (Psalm 90:12), “that your heart might be filled . . .” Filled with thanks for all that you’ve had and for what you’ll still have for a short while more. Filled, as well, with gratefulness for what you soon will have in all its fulness.
So it’s either renewed wonder or final appreciation that this dreadful mass points you toward: whether you live, or whether you die, you will have something to learn. As they slide you out of the electronic sarcophagus you recall that the word ‘tumor’ is the Latin word for ‘growth.’ Later, you look up the medical definition which describes a tumor as “an abnormal mass of new tissue that serves no function in the body.” It’s true, this invasive enemy offers you nothing but threat and destruction, physically. But spiritually, your abhorrent adversary has a job to do. It’s there to teach you something.